Rethinking Book Buying and Collecting

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Marie Kondo in her book the life-changing magic of tidying up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing has me rethinking my feelings about buying and collecting books. Her chapter on tidying up bookshelves is more than just about culling books, but how we think about them. Most bookworms love owning thousands of books. I’ve own as many as ten thousand in my lifetime—although I never read that many.

Kondo challenges us to think about why we keep books. Which leads me to wonder why I buy books. I was just at the bookstore with a gift card in hand. With each book I picked up I asked myself, “Will I read this book right away? If read it right away will I keep it? If I don’t read it right away how long will I wait to read it? And if I never read it, how long before I  give it away?”

A year ago I wouldn’t have left the bookstore empty handed, but today I did. There are a number of ways I’ve changed. First, in tidying up my books I’ve given away hundreds of them. Many of those were not read, but had been sitting on my shelves for years or decades. Tidying up has made me aware of the hundreds of books I still own waiting to be read. I’ve been keeping a books read log since 1983, and in recent times I’ve also noted in what format I read the book. Most were digital audiobooks, but of the ones I read with my eyes, ebooks are starting to overtake print books. Finally, I’ve also subscribed to Scribd.com which is a rental library for ebooks, audiobooks and digital graphic novels. For $8.99 a month I have access to thousands of books and audiobooks. Scribd tends to have older titles, exactly the kind I find when shopping for used book bargains.

I was spending $50-100 a month on used books and Kindle/Bookbub ebook specials. That $8.99 deal gets me more books by renting than I was by buying. So why should I buy? I’ve mostly stopped buying movies since I became a Netflix subscriber, so I think the same thing will happen with books now that I’ve become a Scribd member. Marie Kondo would be so happy.

Yet there’s more to owning books than the urge to collect. We keep books for sentimental reasons, because we feel we might reread them, or they will be reference books. I’ve always kept books because I have a crappy memory and feel I need the book as external memory. In contemplating my feelings for tidying up my bookshelves I realized its very rare for me to go back to a book. I cling to my favorite books because its an emotional way of believing those books are a part of me. One revelation is my favorite stories will always be a part of me as long as I remember those stories, and it doesn’t matter if I own the delivery mechanism in which I read their words.

I also realized that any book I want to read again is a week away via ABE Books for a few dollars, or instantly available by ebook. And it gives me a good feeling to think other people could be reading my favorite books if I let them go. So I did.

What scares me now is I might let all my books go. I’ve always loved to have people see my library. It’s my only impressive visual quality. Can I imagine being the bookworm I am without a wall of books to prove it? There is another revelation that Marie Kondo has accidently led me to comprehend. I am not the books I’ve read, but the book I’m reading.

I think our species is leaving a phase where we defined ourselves by what we own and now see ourselves by what we do.

JWH

5 thoughts on “Rethinking Book Buying and Collecting”

  1. I am “post-book” and read/buy only on my e-reader, except for non-digital books which I borrow from the library. Alas, my home is still full of my husband’s books, including the additional 17 boxes in the basement. We are definitely at different points on the book hoarding scale. When I protest that we’re running out of room, he replies, “We should always have room for books.”
    I’m attempting a stealth attack, though, as I bought him an e-reader for his birthday, and he’s using it!!!!!

  2. I began collecting books because of sentimental reasons. I did not want to forget old favorites and I thought that the easiest way to continue remembering them was to have them constantly around me. But the book buying has grown out of control and sometimes I do purchase some just to show off or just to say, “Oh, I have a copy of that.”

    I think you might enjoy these articles that touch on why we hoard books: “Paper Chasing” by Jake Bittle (The Point) http://thepointmag.com/2015/examined-life/paper-chasing and “The Consumer’s Guide to Insanity” by Antonia Case, which I read in the Summer 2015 issue of “New Philosopher” (I can’t find the article online).

      1. Ah yes, it is expensive but I really like their content so I buy it when I see it. They don’t publish very often though.

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